Brand heard the sound of the mewling cries of a newborn baby coming from upstairs as he headed to the kitchen to grab a quick breakfast. Finding that room empty, he put some bread into the toaster before pouring himself a cup of coffee from the coffeemaker that had been programmed to run around the time the occupants of the manor house awoke.
He'd just sat at the large kitchen table with his food and coffee when Nika walked into the room carrying her two-week-old son, Luke. Brand noticed she looked tired.
"Did you get much sleep last night?" he asked.
"Not really," Nika replied as she pulled out a chair from the table and sat. "Luke still wants to eat every two hours. Garrick got up a couple of times with him since I'm now supplementing Luke with formula, but it wouldn't be too fair of me to make Garrick do more than that after hunting Fenris's get all night. Garrick needs his sleep too."
The baby made some fussing noises, and Nika put Luke up on her shoulder and patted his back. The infant soon settled.
"Give Luke to me," Brand said, and held out his arms across the table for Nika to pass him the baby.
She shook her head. "You're eating."
"Nika," he said, "give me the baby. I can eat and hold him at the same time. You need some food as well."
"Fine. I'm sure you won't take no for an answer. You never do." She handed Brand the baby. "I'm not all that hungry, so I'll be quick. I know you want to go out again, and I won't hold you up."
Brand positioned Luke on his shoulder and rubbed the baby's back until he stopped squirming. Brand turned his head and kissed Luke's soft cheek as he dragged in the infant's scent. Even though he hadn't told anyone, he loved the smell of babies and hoped one day to have one of his own.
"It's fine, Nika," he said. "Don't rush. I have nothing pressing to do."
As she put some bread into the toaster, Nika asked, "Where is it that you go when you leave? You never say a word about what you do. You're gone all day and come back to have dinner then go hunting."
Brand took a sip of coffee before he answered. He liked to keep his daily excursions his business. "Around."
Nika turned to face the table. "Around? That's it? I have a feeling Maggie knows, but she isn't telling."
Maggie, Dolf's mate, was the only person he'd said something to about what he'd kept hidden for so many years. And he'd only done it to try to convince her how Dolf would feel if she continued to hold her mate at arm's length, afraid to accept Dolf as hers.
In way of answer, Brand picked up a piece of toast off his plate and took a big bite. That just caused Nika to shake her head.
He knew she'd hoped to get him to talk, but he wasn't ready to do that. Maybe one day, though the chances were pretty slim. He wasn't much of a talker and kept his emotions close. Even as a mortal, he'd been that way.
Brand waited until Nika had finished her breakfast before he handed the baby back and then headed out the front door of the manor house. He went to the large, detached garage and got into his silver Lexus LFA sports car. It didn't take him long to pull out onto the long, gravel drive and onto the road.
He drove to middle of Norwich and parked at the side of the road two blocks from his destination. On foot, he traveled the rest of the distance as he did day after day. At least today it wasn't raining, and he wouldn't end up soaked to the bone from standing out in it.
Slowing his pace as he neared the small building containing a number of flats, Brand looked toward the window on the second floor that faced the road. He came to an instant stop and shifted closer to the wall of the building beside him, though he could still see what took place at the smaller one.
A woman had her head stuck out the window as she yelled at a man who stood on the pavement looking up at her. Brand's gaze greedily soaked up the sight of the woman--his mate. Though she didn't know that yet. With his acute hearing, he heard every word she said.
"I told you to come for your shit last week, Teddy," the woman said sharply.
"Oh, come on, Elsa. Just because I didn't come and get my stuff when you wanted doesn't mean you can stop me from picking it up today."
"Fine," Elsa called down. "You want your shit right now? I'll give it to you." She disappeared for a few seconds, then returned and pushed an armload of clothes out the window to rain down on Teddy. "Don't go just yet. There's a little bit more." Elsa disappeared again just before more clothes went sailing through the air.
"Do you know how much of a bitch you're being right now?" Teddy called up to her, anger tingeing his words. He scrambled around, picking up his belongings off the pavement. He then shoved the lot into the car parked on the side of the street in front of him.
Brand stiffened, not liking the tone the other man used. Elsa was Brand's mate, and as such, he wouldn't tolerate another male abusing her so. But he kept his silence for now, wanting to watch how this played out.
"I'm being a bitch?" Elsa yelled. "Then I guess that makes you an asshole, Teddy. You're the one who decided to dump me, your fiancee, to take up with your old girlfriend. You're lucky I haven't done more than throw your clothes at you. And by the way, I'm keeping the furniture. I paid for most of it, anyway. So sod off. I can't stand the sight of you."
"The way you're acting now, I'm thinking I made the right decision. You can keep the bloody furniture, but I want the laptop. I bought that. And don't you dare throw it out the window."
"Will you go away if I give it to you?"
"I'll be down in a minute then."
Brand shifted his gaze to the entrance of the building. Elsa stepped through the door less than a minute later, carrying a laptop. She shoved it at Teddy. "Take the damn thing and leave."
"I think I should come up and make sure there isn't anything you've forgotten to give me that is mine," Teddy said as he tried to sidestep around Elsa.
She moved with him, blocking his attempts. "No way in hell are you coming up to the flat. It's mine now. I even had the landlady take your name off the lease."
Teddy put out his arm to shove her aside, and that was enough to have Brand closing the distance between him and the other two people. Once Elsa had come down from the flat, he'd inched closer to the couple.
"Everything okay?" Brand asked, his question directed at Elsa.
She nodded. "Yes. He was just leaving."
"No, I'm not," Teddy said sharply.
Teddy went to step around Elsa again, but Brand shifted so he stood directly in front of the smaller man, who ended up bouncing off Brand's chest. Brand took great satisfaction in the fact that he had twice the muscle mass Teddy had, and that he towered over the man.
Brand bent his head slightly, looked Teddy direct in the eyes, and said, "Leave." He spoke the one word with a hint of a growl and a snarl of his lip.
The other man audibly swallowed, clutched the laptop he held close to his chest, and quickly turned on his heel. Without looking back, Teddy got into his car and drove away, cutting off traffic in his haste.
Brand turned back to Elsa. He couldn't help but run his gaze over her gorgeous face, taking in her long, light brown hair and slim, curvy body. She stared at him with her hazel eyes. This was the closest he'd been to her in the past seven years. The first time they'd met she'd only been sixteen. Now she stood before him a mature woman and obviously one who was sure of herself.
With that one chance meeting, Brand had known she was the one meant for him--his mate. Back then, his wolf had thrown its head back inside him and had howled with longing. As it was doing right at this moment. Even though none of his other fellow warriors had yet to find their mates at that time, Brand had known what Elsa was to him. Only her age had stopped him from claiming her. Walking away from her that day had been the hardest thing he'd ever done, but that hadn't stopped him from watching over her all these years to make sure she was protected and happy. He'd even gone so far to ensure her happiness by not interfering when he'd found out she'd become engaged. He would have let her marry another man if that had been what she truly wanted. He'd found out about her engagement six months before when he'd followed her to a local pub where she'd met up with a bunch of her friends to celebrate. It'd just about torn Brand's heart out.
"Ah, thanks," Elsa said. "Teddy was being a bit of a wanker."
They stood staring at each other for a couple of seconds before Elsa broke the silence. "Do I know you? You look awfully familiar."
"No, you don't."
She smiled. "You don't say much, do you?"
Brand shrugged. "Not really."
"So you're the strong, dark, and silent type. Nothing wrong with that. Must mean you're more of a thinker." She held out her hand. "I'm Elsa."
He wrapped his much bigger one around hers, glorying in the feel of the skin-to-skin contact. His cock twitched, and he became semi-aroused. "Brand."
"Well, Brand, it was nice to meet you."
Elsa made to let go, but he didn't release her. "Have a drink with me at the pub this afternoon."
She hesitated for a few seconds before she nodded. "Sure. Why the hell not? I can drink to seeing the last of my asshole ex-fiance while I'm at it. Tell me the time and the pub and I'll be there."
"How about the White Stallion? It's just down the street from here. Around three?"
Elsa tugged her hand free once he loosened his grip. "Sure. Sounds good. See you then."
Brand watched her walk back into her building before he went down the street. He didn't go very far. He still had to watch over Elsa and, especially, make sure Teddy didn't come back to bother her again.
Elsa closed her flat's door behind her and locked it. She leaned against it with a big smile tugging at her lips. With a silly giggle, she ran to the window and looked down, hoping to catch another glimpse of Brand before he left, but he ended up being nowhere in sight.
She went to her bedroom and surveyed the mess she'd made while collecting Teddy's clothes to throw out the window. She had to admit it had felt good watching them rain down on him. After a year and a half of being together, it just went to show Elsa really hadn't known her ex-fiance, after all. Never had she thought he would have broken their engagement to jump at the chance of getting back with his former girlfriend. She'd known Teddy and the girl had been in love--he'd told her that much--but she'd thought for sure he'd gotten over the woman and that he'd loved Elsa more. Boy had she been wrong. He'd dumped her and became engaged to his first love on the same day. That'd been a nice slap to Elsa's face.
But things were looking up for her. Meeting Brand was exactly what she needed. In looks, Brand was all man with his big muscles and gruff, quiet exterior. Teddy had none of those things. Compared to Brand, Teddy came across as a wimp. He really hadn't been the type of guy Elsa was attracted to. Now reflecting back, Teddy had just been comfortable to be with.
Brand, on the other hand, made her panties wet just from looking at him. He had past-the-shoulders black hair and dark blue eyes. She wanted to eat him up. Or at the very least lick every inch of his well-muscled, hard body. She also liked the fact he was really tall at six feet five. Teddy was only an inch and a half taller than her five foot five. It'd been pretty funny to watch her ex bounce off Brand's chest.
Elsa set to work cleaning her bedroom. She'd also give her flat a bit of a cleaning, just in case she ended up inviting Brand over after their drink at the pub. Actually, if she had her way, he would be coming here. Even though it'd only been a couple of weeks since Teddy had broken things off with her, Elsa was more than ready to move on. And Brand looked as if he'd be the man to help her do that.
Her phone rang, and Elsa walked over to the nightstand to pick up the cordless. "Hello?"
"Hey, Elsa. How's my little sis doing today?"
Elsa smiled at the sound of her sister's voice. Renea was two years her senior. "Much better. Actually, a lot better."
"Wow. I don't think I've heard you sound this chipper since that fuckwad Teddy walked out on you. Something must have happened."
That was her sister--she could swear with the best of them. She'd actually rubbed off a bit on Elsa, much to their mother's disappointment. "More like a someone."
"You met a new guy?"
"When did this happen? When we spoke yesterday, you were still cursing Teddy."
"Oh, I did a little of that to his face when he came demanding his stuff back." Elsa went on to explain what had happened with Teddy and how Brand had stepped in.
"He sounds delicious," Renea said with a sigh. "If Brand happens to have any single friends, you can always send them my way."
"I thought you and Jacob were still going strong."
"That was last week. You know me. It doesn't take much for me to get bored with a man and then move on to the next one."
"I don't think you're ever going to settle down," Elsa said with a laugh. "Mum bemoans that she'll never have grandchildren since the two of us aren't settling down."
Renea chuckled. "And she'd had such high hopes for you once you became engaged to Teddy."
"Well, I still have plenty of time. I'm only twenty-three. We both do. On that note, I'm going to let you go. I have to do a little cleaning up around here. I trashed my bedroom getting Teddy's clothes out of it."
Renea chuckled again. "I wish I could have been there to see his face when you shoved his things out the flat's window at him. I'll let you go, but I want details tomorrow on how your date went with Brand."
"Will do. Talk to you tomorrow."
Elsa ended the call, and then placed the cordless back on its base. Time was slipping away, and she had to get to work on the flat. Her thoughts on Brand, she straightened her room before attacking the living room.
At five to three that afternoon, Brand sat in his car parked at the side of the road just down from Elsa's flat. He waited for her to come out of her building. Since the pub wasn't that far from where she lived, he figured she might walk to the White Stallion. He'd already decided he'd let her get halfway there before he drove to the pub. That way he could watch her for a bit and then drive ahead to meet her when she arrived.
A minute later, Elsa stepped out onto the pavement. Brand sucked in a sharp breath at what she wore. She had on a pair of skinny blue jeans that were molded to her shapely, long legs. They also showed off her bottom in a way that had his cock going instantly hard. A lavender short-sleeved blouse and black high-heeled ankle boots completed the outfit. She was gorgeous. Brand let out a low growl as a man walked by her and then turned his head to take a second look as she went in the other direction.
After starting the car, Brand waited for an opening and then merged with the flow of traffic. He slowed a bit as he drove past Elsa. She didn't look in his direction and kept walking. He arrived at the pub and parked in the lot next to the building. He got out of the car and headed toward the front entrance, pushing the remote on his keychain to lock the vehicle's doors.
Reaching the pavement in front of the pub, Brand stopped and turned to look in the direction Elsa walked. He saw her a short distance away. She must have seen him because she waved. He waved back, enjoying the sight of how she moved as she came closer.
"Hi, Brand," Elsa said once she stood in front of him. "Did you just drive by me in a silver Lexus?" He nodded. "I thought that was you."
"Shall we go inside?"
With a hand on the small of Elsa's back, Brand guided her to the entrance and into the building. Her scent wrapped around him. The small contact made his blood flow hotter, rushing to fill his cock. He'd never thought he'd get to touch Elsa in any way or spend one-on-one time with her. For the first time since he'd found her, he actually had hope that she'd be his mate.
Inside the pub, Brand guided Elsa over to one of the tables at the back of the room. He sat so he faced toward the front of the building, which gave him a good view of the entrance. He never left himself in a position where someone could sneak up on him.
After the waitress took their drink order--a glass of white wine for Elsa and a dark ale for him--Brand turned his attention on Elsa and found her staring at him. He gave her a questioning look.
She smiled. "Sorry, I don't mean to stare, but I still think you look familiar. As if I should recognize you from somewhere."
"As I said before, we've never met. Maybe I just have one of those faces that everyone finds familiar, and they seem to think they know me."
Elsa shook her head with a chuckle. "I doubt that. You'd have to be pretty average-looking if that were the case, and you're far from it. You're too good-looking."
Brand smiled, liking that his mate found him attractive. "Thanks for the compliment."
"I bet you have women telling you that all the time."
He reached across the table and captured Elsa's hand. "If they do, I really don't pay much attention to it. Right now all I care about is what you think of me. Your opinion is more important." Brand watched Elsa's cheeks darken to a pretty shade of pink.
She looked down and then back up at his face. "All I can say to that is, wow. You must hold me in high regard, even though we just met. You barely know me. What if I turn out to be a big bitch?"
He gave her a crooked smile. "Oh, I know you aren't."
The waitress returned and served them their drinks. Once she left them alone, Elsa said, "So you figure you already have me pegged, do you? Do you have some kind of psychic power that you haven't told me about?"
Brand shook his head. "No, but I've been around enough women to know when one isn't the type of woman I want to be with shortly after I meet her."
Elsa took a sip of her wine. "Really? It's too bad I don't have that talent, or I might have saved myself a lot of trouble when it came to Teddy."
"Were you two together long?" Brand already knew the answer, but he still needed to ask the right questions, or Elsa would wonder if he let something slip by accident. She was smart and would pick up on anything she considered out of the ordinary.
"Long enough. In total, it was just over a year."
"Did you love him?" Brand held himself completely still as he waited for Elsa to answer.
She sighed. "Now that I reflect back on it, probably not. I think I was more in love with the idea of being in love, if you know what I mean. In some ways, Teddy breaking off the engagement was the best thing he could have done for me. At least he didn't dump me and go back to his ex after we were married. That would have been worse."
And Brand would have made sure Teddy paid for it, considering what Brand would have given up for the other male to marry the woman who was Brand's.
"So you're over Teddy then?" he asked.
She snorted. "I'm over the 'love' I had for him, but not over the anger quite yet. The man's a rat. He could have ended things better than he did. Instead the idiot told me exactly why we were over. His ex-girlfriend had taken him back, and he'd already asked her to marry him. He'd said they couldn't make it official until he ended things with me. He'd even had the audacity to ask for the ring back that he'd given me so he could give it to his new fiancee."
Brand suddenly had second thoughts about letting Teddy walk away without facing some kind of consequences. Yes, the other man's leaving left everything wide open for Brand to claim Elsa as his, but Teddy had insulted Elsa.
"I should pay Teddy a visit," he said. "Make him squirm a bit."
Elsa looked solemnly at Brand and then burst out laughing. Brand's brows furrowed in confusion. She held up a hand, her laughter slowly fading. "I'm not laughing at you. I promise. I just had the mental picture of Teddy pissing himself and screaming like a little girl if you were to show up on his doorstep. The man's a wimp. He'd probably faint at your feet if you so much as lifted a fist in his direction. You saw today how he couldn't get away from you fast enough."
"Well, if he bothers you again, I won't let it go."
"If he does, you have my blessing to scare the shit out of him. The fuckwad--as my sister calls Teddy--would deserve it."
Brand barely managed to hide the smile that tugged at his lips. His mate had a bit of a potty mouth, and he liked it. That meant she wouldn't hold back if they ever had an argument. She would give it to him with both barrels, which was a good thing. He was the first person to admit he tended to have a domineering personality. If Elsa were the type of woman to sit back and let him do or say anything he wanted, they'd never last. And if he had his way, they'd be together forever.
"Enough about Teddy," Elsa said. "The more I talk about him the more pissed off I get. So what do you do for a living, Brand?"
"A little of this and that. Nothing you'd consider a real job, I'm sure." Watching over Elsa had become his day job while hunting werewolves was his night job. He couldn't tell her about either of those things though.
She took another sip of wine and twirled a lock of her hair between her fingers while she looked at him. Brand itched to reach out and touch the silky mass that fell over her shoulders. He wanted to bury his face in it and just breathe Elsa in.
"Judging by the car you drive," she said, "I'd say money isn't a problem for you."
"No, not really." Being immortal and having lived for over a thousand years, he'd had plenty of time to amass a fortune. "What do you do?" He'd followed her to work once, but he really didn't know exactly what her job was.
"Nothing exciting. I'm a bookkeeper at a smallish roofing company. I went to the University of East Anglia for accounting and finance." Elsa smiled. "Most people think my job is boring, pushing numbers around all day, but I like it. I could have taken my education further to certify myself for something higher. I didn't. I prefer just being a bookkeeper. Not as much stress."
Brand stroked his thumb across the back of her hand. He liked listening to Elsa talk, especially about herself. He wanted to learn everything there was about her. "Nothing wrong with liking what you do, no matter what type of job it is."
Elsa shifted her hand under his and linked their fingers together. "I think we've talked enough about me. What about you? Have you always lived in Norwich?"
"Yes. I was born here and can't see myself ever leaving."
Back during the time of his birth, it hadn't been a city, just a settlement called Northwic, which had eventually grown, merging with others until it became the largest walled town in all of medieval England.
"I feel the same way," Elsa said. "I would never want to live in a city as big as London. Too many people for me."
Their conversation turned to other subjects with Elsa doing most of the talking. Brand held her hand the entire time, but she didn't seem to mind. Seven long years he'd waited for this. The last year had been agonizing. He'd waited for her to grow up only to lose her to another man. He'd kicked himself over the stupid mistake he'd made of waiting longer than he should have to approach Elsa. But now he had the opportunity to rectify it. After today, he wouldn't let anyone, or anything, come between them.